Experience as an Early Warning System in Healthcare

Nigel Herbert

The healthcare sector has undergone a remarkable digital transformation in recent years, from online patient portals to digitally crowdsourcing innovation in the medical community. New technologies are being deployed to improve health outcomes at every step of the care pathway, and collectively, these actions make up the patient experience. But what is often overlooked is just how experience itself impacts health outcomes.

As healthcare providers consider the lessons of the past couple of years and look ahead, now is the time to ask: how can experience be a guide to better health outcomes?

Experience as a fundamental pillar of healthcare provision

While experience is traditionally seen as outside the realm of clinical work, it is increasingly considered a core ingredient of a value-based healthcare system, and a fundamental part of decision-making and patient welfare in the sector. The NHS, for example, now mandates the measurement of patient experience data – factors such as dignity, compassion and involvement in care decisions – to optimise healthcare delivery, improve care quality and promote patient choice.

Studies suggest there is a credible link between positive patient experiences and desirable healthcare activity, such as adherence to prescribed medication, use of available healthcare resources and even vaccine take-up. Simply put, it’s proven that better experiences can lead to better participation, relationships, trust and overall outcomes. At the same time, negative experiences – such as not feeling heard – can indicate that the patient will diverge from the specified treatment plan. In this sense, experience can also help predict the future, much like an early warning system.

But if the majority of your patients are ‘silent’, there is a good chance you’re not listening, or worse, taking action based on the views of a vocal minority – a risky strategy in the healthcare sector. The pandemic has highlighted just how widely patient experiences can vary across factors of age, gender, race, ethnicity and location. Since there is no one-size-fits-all solution, healthcare providers must do everything in their power to understand the full experience of all the individuals within their care, and take targeted action to address the root cause of disparities. This is a fundamental tenet which is a critical factor in our quest towards personalised medicine.

Treating patients, not merely their symptoms

Recognising the importance of experience in healthcare is a great start, however, to go beyond and turn best practice into action, healthcare providers must also recognise that experience, in its most basic form, is data.

This valuable experience data is available, measurable and hiding in plain sight – on your website, in your call centre, in the conversation employees have with your patients. It can be direct customer feedback or indirect experience signals that paint a picture of the patient, their symptoms and sentiments. The key is to look beyond the traditional realm of clinical data and medical records, and fully understand lifestyle issues and stresses that could have a vital bearing on the care pathway which is pursued.

Through real-time data capture and analysis of a patient’s journey, healthcare organisations can unlock a holistic view of the key drivers of the patient experience and tap into crucial in-the-moment insights that prompt teams to take action. For example, a care provider may notice a distinct sense of frustration in call centre logs or a recurring issue in ordering repeat prescriptions. By addressing these issues in-the-moment, as they occur, patients can be reassured that their experience – and most importantly, their health – matters. 

Healthcare provision takes teamwork

Providing a responsive and seamless healthcare experience is in the best interests of both the care staff and the patient, and, when done well, is the key to developing comprehensive solutions that cut through silos, wait times and the general frustration which are often hallmarks of the sector. These frustrations extend to the care staff as well, who are themselves at risks of illness as well as burnout.

Under usual working conditions, severe burnout syndrome affects a third of critical care nurses – and while it may take years to understand the full extent of the toll Covid-19 has taken on healthcare workers, it’s safe to assume the crisis has exacerbated underlying mental health issues. Beyond looking after their own welfare, healthcare staff are also the channel of communication between patients and their institutions, and as such, are the custodians of valuable information on the patient experience.

It is then clear why the voices of employees must be heard much the same way as patients. Unearthing the experiences of the silent majority can turn healthcare provision into real teamwork, where the patient, their family, care staff and healthcare leaders are all working towards the same goal. As my colleague Richard Schwartz writes, “The patient is a team member, sometimes active, sometimes passive, sometimes metaphorically, but always the lens to look through.”

A need for modern employee listening and engagement strategies

Ensuring that insights gathered by frontline workers are shared within the organisation and acted upon is crucial, but despite the clear benefit, many organisations struggle to put in place modern employee listening, engagement and experience programmes.

Most institutions only listen to their staff annually and through formal engagement surveys, which are often lengthy and focus more on the perception of the organisation than the concerns of healthcare workers and their patients. A more responsive and meaningful alternative is to capture real-time employee feedback signals from a combination of ad-hoc and topic-based surveys; idea-sharing and collaboration platforms; and operational data sources, such as performance ratings and paid leave utilisation rates.

Technology offers a way to capture and analyse this experience data in one place, so that decision-makers can immediately understand how to support staff and address their needs before it’s too late. Healthcare organisations can also deploy technologies to meet staff on their preferred channels and collect experience signals from these interactions. For example, speech analytics tools are able to detect sentiment, while AI-enhanced video solutions can read facial expressions and interpret emotion, enabling decision-makers to capture six times as much information as they would through text. The ability of this rich information to guide healthcare delivery, operational improvements and staff welfare initiatives is precisely what makes experience a powerful early warning system.

Entering a new age of patient-centric care

As we come to terms with the disruptions and learnings of the past couple of years and start to more widely recognise experience as a fundamental element of care, the onus is on healthcare providers to capture, analyse and act on the views and ideas of the silent majority – both among their patients and staff. Ensuring that the care team and all participants feel heard creates more positive experiences, which in turn can not only optimise the care pathway but also foster community, loyalty and engagement with the organisation, and above all, build trust. Only by moving past the strictly clinical aspects of care to a more holistic, experience-driven approach will the sector become as patient-centric as it rightfully deserves to be.